Photographed by Zack Clothier

Outside: Lighty-Dark

To the west, above Sheep Mountain, silver-lined clouds disappear into the alpenglow of the setting sun. Bands of pink settle on the ridgetop across the valley as the summer light slowly fades through the lens of an old jackleg fence on the rise. I watch the blue-green of the tamaracks darken to ebony, the distinct clusters of their pine needles no longer visible. From a distance, the mountainside loses its edge and settles peacefully into the curve of a sleeping brontosaurus.   

Curlews forage for beetles in the open meadow, occasionally calling ur weep-ur weep, while a kestrel hovers low over sun-bleached sagebrush and bunchgrass, kiting for voles and grasshoppers before returning to nest in the large, rough-hewn bird box at the front gate. Bitterroot and pasque flowers gently tuck in their lovely petals as the ponderosa pines across the meadow open their boughs wide — releasing their sun shadows, awaiting their moon shadows. A black-chinned hummingbird daintily sips a few more drops of sugar water before flitting away to its thimble-sized nest in a nearby lilac bush. The evening plays out like the final notes of Brahms’ Lullaby.

In June, leading up to the summer solstice, daylight lingers in western Montana until almost 11 p.m. Nature uses the waning hours to take a collective deep breath, to slowly let go of the day’s tension and relax into the evening before night falls. The French call it l’heure bleue

Of the thousands of place names described in English author Robert Macfarlane’s best-selling book, Landmarks, which explores the vital connection of language to landscape, there is one word that resonates most with me: “‘lighty-dark,’ a word to describe the light occurring at the edge of darkness.” 

Macfarlane discovered the word shortly after his book was published in the spring of 2015. In a posted note, a Mrs. Margaret Cockcroft, aged 96, wrote that she had created the word “lighty-dark” when she was 11 years old while walking home in the countryside at dusk. Macfarlane was so charmed with both the word and Mrs. Cockcroft that he included lighty-dark in a later edition of his book.

Though worlds apart in both time and distance — I live on the bank of the Blackfoot River in Montana, and Mrs. Cockcroft lived in Lancashire, England in 1930 — we are kindred spirits. I, too, revel in the lighty-dark, my evening walks timed precisely to experience those fleeting mystical moments of light that all too quickly fade to darkness. 

I first experienced lighty-dark as a small child during overnight stays at my family’s ramshackle homesteader’s cabin near Belmont Creek, a small tributary that joins the Blackfoot River as it flows west from the Continental Divide. My aunt and uncle seldom accompanied us, leaving my two teenage cousins as my sole protectors. Terrified to be left alone at dusk, amidst the crumbling horsehair chinking and patter of small feet scurrying across the worn pine floorboards, I would follow along to burn the day’s trash in an old rusty incinerator 300 yards beyond the cabin. So scared that I was barely able to breathe, I would clasp my small fingers in my 15-year-old cousin’s hand as we walked up the narrow path leading to the grim, gaping-mouthed firebox. I can still remember the feel of my heart pounding, like the beat of a primeval drum, keeping rhythm with our quickening steps and the crunch of the gravel beneath my boots. 

My cousins would whisper among themselves: “See that second stand of ponderosa pines way across the valley, just after the clearing? Locals call it the ‘second woods.’ Our neighbor, Mr. Kite, said we’re never to go there once the sun goes down. It’s not safe — especially if you see lights shining through the trees. He says the lights mean there are bad people in the bottoms, playing cards and drinking whiskey. That the trunks of the trees are twisted, and you won’t ever find your way out.”

More afraid than ever of the night sounds and the thought of boogeymen in the woods, I was convinced there were surely wraiths flying just above our heads. To protect myself, I tightened my grip and kept my eyes shut, except for an occasional peek at the night sky. 

Eventually, as I grew older and more confident in the natural world, I lost my fear of being outside at dusk. But memories often bring me back to the weekends I spent with my cousins, and the early awareness of my own insignificance as I glanced up at a dazzling night sky illuminated by billions of tiny points of light. 

These days, I seek out the lighty-dark like a hawk moth hovering against a windowpane, drawn to the amber glow reflected from within. I’m comfortable being alone in the slow drawl of a summer night, awaiting the arrival of the nocturnal creatures who are just beginning to stir.

Little brown bats, Myotis lucifugus, are the harbingers of night in our valley. In the last moments of waning light, the elusive furballs dart in succession — one, two, three — from under the eaves of our house and up from the sheltered outcropping and crevices in the cliffs on the opposite side of the river. I lose count at 47 — brown hobgoblins hurling themselves like buckshot into the night air, scattering in all directions in pursuit of mosquitos, beetles, and other flying insects. 

Mere minutes after the bats take flight, lighty-dark fades to dark, like the drop of a velvet curtain after the final act, and night begins on the banks of the Big Blackfoot River.

Deborah Houlihan O’Connell is a freelance writer whose essays and poetry are inspired by our inherent connection to nature and the wildlife and landscape that surrounds us. She lives with her husband, Jerry, and dog, Burnfoot, on the banks of the Blackfoot River in western Montana. When she isn’t writing, she is out walking in the wilderness.

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